Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Anti-Heroes

We talked a lot last week about our characters, even talked about taking them to lunch. The truth is, I do. I take them everywhere I go. They're never far from my thoughts. Even the ones I no longer write about are like old friends you call and chat with once in a while. That's how real our characters are to us. If not for the fact that we're novelists, our make-believe friends could get us locked up for a very long time.
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The book I'm writing now has my first ever anti-hero for a protagonist. Wise Geek defines anti-hero this way: "The main character [in a novel] is referred to as the hero or heroine of the story ... When the main character is deeply flawed, however, lacking in the attributes we most often associate with heroism, we have the anti-hero." And my current protagonist is most definitely flawed.
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The challenge is to figure out a way to endear to my readers a woman who, on the surface, is easy to dislike. Now more than ever I need to know and understand this woman and show her fears and vulnerabilities, her deep-seated needs and desires, in order to override what she displays on the outside. My premise is validated by an April 23, 2008 Writers Digest article, "Defining and Developing Your Anti-Hero," which says, "One trick to creating an anti-hero is to fashion his primary traits so that his essential nature and personality are clear to you as you craft each scene he appears in. Then you need to know the why of these traits and beliefs --- in essence, how he came to be." Or in the case of my anti-hero, she.
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When it comes to anti-heroes there are plenty of resources to fall back on, for Hollywood has made an industry out of the anti-hero. Bogart, Cagney, Bronson, Newman, McQueen, James Dean, all anti-heroes. Han Solo, Captain Jack Sparrow too. It's harder to come by female anti-heroes, especially in film, but the quintessential literary female anti-hero would have to be Scarlett O'Hara. Her male counterpart, in my mind, is Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy.
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David Copperfield, one of my all-time favorite novels, begins: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." I love that opening, but my experience is that most of us are more anti-hero than hero. I know I am. In that regard I tend to better relate to my current protagonist than to, say, the angelic Elizabeth Bennett. I can be moody, uncooperative, irritating, sarcastic ... and that's on a good day. But does that mean I want to read about a person like me? If the story is compelling, yes. If the anti-hero isn't cliched and one-dimensional, yes. If there's a point to the story, yes. In other words, I don't want to read or write about an anti-hero for the sake of having an anti-hero as my protagonist. This story isn't an experiment to see if I can pull it off. It just happens that the story I'm telling belongs to an anti-hero. It's her story so she gets to be the star.
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As a reader, how do you relate to a protagonist that's deeply flawed? Are you willing to give her a chance, or would it be a turn-off to you? What would make an anti-hero tolerable to you? Intolerable? Can you think of a contemporary novel you've read and enjoyed where the protagonist is an anti-hero, particularly a female? I'd love to hear from you.

16 comments:

Chris Jager - Baker Book House-fiction buyer said...

I love anti-heroes/heroines. They are so much more like "real" life than the perfect people you find in some novels. I think one of the most recent anti heroes I have read is actually in Her Mother's Hope by Francine Rivers. The Charater of Marta is very very difficult to like. She is very prickly and the way she treats one of her children is very difficult to like. But as the story goes one and we are allowed into more of her story I begin to understand her.
That my be why they are my favorites. Perfect people have nothing to learn about themselves. It is all "perfect" and they don't need to change. But anti-heroes do and so do I.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Chris, thank you for your outstanding comment. I love what you said: "Perfect people have nothing to learn about themselves." Exactly why I love to read fiction that takes a deeper look at the human condition. Because that's me. And, wow, do I have a lot to learn.

Lynn Dean said...

Anti-heroes make a book hard to "get into" for me, but I can't think of a time that the effort hasn't been worth it. They appeal to my desire to see justice served through natural consequences or to see God change even the most difficult cases.

The example of an anti-hero that came to my mind first is the crotchity little man in the movie, UP. Powerful stuff.

Alexandra said...

My very favorite anti-hero is The Phantom of the Opera (Michael Crawford *only*, puleeze!!! Do not mention Gerard Butler if you value your life. ;-)). Just amazing, amazing character. Despite his glaring flaws, you feel for him deeply.

Anti-heroes usually stick with you the longest because they're real, just like normal people. They're anti-hero because of deep emotional scars, and their journey from beginning to end of the story is very deep, which resonates with people.

That's my two cents.

Bonnie Grove said...

Chris: I think one of the most important things we can do as readers is give the story and characters a chance to develop over time - let the novel unfold a bit before we make judgments about the characters and how much we liked them. Excellent point - I haven't read River's latest, so I can't comment there.

Lynn: I LOVE this: Anti-heroes make a book hard to "get into" for me, but I can't think of a time that the effort hasn't been worth it." THANK you for pointing out that great novels are worth some effort on our part. Sure, we pick up a romance novel, or the latest suspense for a bit of mindless entertainment - that's fine. But meatier reads deserve our digging in and holding on.

Alexandra: I will never utter Gerard Butler's name again. Ever. I promise. :)

I'd like to add one of modern literature's most enduring anti-hero novels has to be The Godfather. Everyone in that story is an anti-hero in some way, yet the story endures - sticks with us in ways I'm sure the author never thought possible.

christa said...

Anti-heroes/heroines intrigue me. Often, if there's something I strongly dislike in the character, it's because I may see, with a bit of honest self-reflection, a slice of myself. Ouch.

And I've found in life that sometimes the gifts don't always appear in the wrapping we expect. That's how I view anti-heroes/heroines in novels.

Samantha Bennett said...

I am a big fan of the anti-hero. Probably because I relate to their flaws a little too well. :) One of my faves is Angel/Sarah from Francine River's Redeeming Love. She hard and cool and often cruel, but we see why and love her all the more.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

I recently read "The Gendarme" by Mark T. Mustian, and the main character, Emmet Conn, is a great example of a compelling anti-hero. It helps that the story is told from his perspective as both an old and young man. In that way the reader is given distance from the worst aspects of his character. It was a hard read (in terms of graphic violence) but I longed for him to be a better man so I endured the sadness.

And I wonder if the best use of an anti-hero is not to provide a picturesque ending but to leave us with questions and discomfort. To give us an unsettling glimpse into ourselves.

Karen Schravemade said...

I don't think I'd come across the term "anti-hero" before. Thanks, Sharon, for teaching me something new!

It's interesting, because the women's fiction manuscript I'm working on at the moment has a female protagonist who ends up making increasingly devastating choices that could potentially alienate the reader. I've been very aware that I need to work hard to make her sympathetic to begin with, so that the reader is willing to take her hand and walk alongside her down some fairly dark pathways.

It all comes down to motivation. I feel that if I can dig to the root of her motivations and help the reader in some way understand where she's coming from, perhaps they'll stick with her through those unlikable moments and cheer her on toward something better.

I wonder if I've unwittingly created an anti-hero?

Nicole said...

Reese in Kristen Heitzmann's trilogy (Secrets, Unforgotten, Echoes) is a bit of an anti-heroine and is done wonderfully. We are drawn to her uniqueness and root for her to let down, but the main thing is she captures our compassion even when she's unmovable, stubborn. She's kind of like Temperance Brennan (Bones)--she grows on you. I think the only way anti-heroes will work is if they snag our sympathy or empathy. Otherwise we just hate them and can't get into the story. I think it's also important to clue the reader in to the reasons for the character's attitude reasonably early or some of us won't care when the information is finally revealed.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Karen, you're absolutely on the right track when you say you must get the reader on the side of your anti-hero protag. I'd recommend you select a truly unbiased person to walk with you through this manuscript, who will read it with as little bias as possible, and who will be honest with you if you until you accomplish what you need to with your character.

Anonymous said...

Alexandra, you're so right about Michael Crawford! And I never understood what Christine saw in Raoul.
I'm thinking Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Wow.

Latayne C Scott said...

Oh boy! This is great stuff. I'll continue the discussion with a post about "dark" central characters tomorrow and I hope you'll all participate. I will be out of Internet range so the other NM ladies will be responding.

Also, I never comment on the word verifications but this one is too good to pass up:

latedup -- when your menstrual period is past due but you're not sure. . .

Henrietta Frankensee said...

There is a spectrum of personality with divine on one end and purely evil on the other. Every character falls somewhere in between. The hero must have just enough impurity to make him believably human and the anti hero must have a touch of redemption to draw the heart of the reader....and the writer who is profoundly intimate with the character, good or bad.
A society that progressively rejects divinity and nurtures evil makes heroes less welcome and harder to make believable.....and more urgently craved by the human soul. We crave balance even when we reject it. Anti heroes require less and less redemption to draw a following.
Christian literature is different because we have a Hero! We have perfection to keep us grounded, anchored to a Greater Reality. Our heroes are endearing for their attempts to be like Him and our anti heroes are endearing for His continual quest to redeem them.
Therefore we have Frodo and Striker and even Gollum.
We have Edmund too. And Jo in Little Women. All to the Glory of our Beloved Hero.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Henrietta, thank you for an excellent and thought-provoking comment. You make an excellent point "... our anti-heroes are endearing for His continual quest to redeem them." I love that. And I love Lord of the Rings. I'm such a fan.

Sharon K. Souza said...
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